Have you ever seen a tragedy coming and could do nothing to stop it? One evening as Terry and I left a Florida Marlins baseball game in South Florida (we’re Cubs fans and they were in town), a car passed us at a high speed and eventually lost control as it sped by. Careening out of control, the car bounced along the center concrete median. Sparks flew as the underside of the car scraped the concrete curb. It stopped quickly and several other cars bounced around slightly—it was scary and tense and very, very quick in happening. No one was hurt, as it turned out, except for damage to cars.
Reading Daniel 5 gives me that same feeling of helplessness and distress. From our distance in time, our knowledge of history, and the account of Daniel, we know the king, and likely those dining with him at his royal banquet, are destined for destruction. Yet we can do nothing to prevent it. Helplessly, we look on as judgment day comes for king Belshazzar.
Announcement of the king’s coming judgment begins by a mysterious hand writing on the wall of the banquet hall. Crying aloud, the king summons the wise men of Babylon. Their inability to fulfill his instructions only adds to his frustration. When his ability to interpret such matters is made known to the king, Daniel enters the scene.
It was in chapter 2 of the Book of Daniel that king Nebuchadnezzar had a distressing dream, which he demanded that his wise men reveal and interpret; they could not do so. Daniel revealed the dream and its meaning to king Nebuchadnezzar, and in so doing spared the lives of the wise men. In chapter 4, Nebuchadnezzar had yet another dream. Once again, the king first sought the meaning from the other wise men of Babylon. When all others failed to explain the king’s dream, Daniel revealed its meaning and called on the king to repent, so that the threatened outcome might be delayed or prevented.
Another king now sits on the throne in Babylon. His name is Belshazzar.
Nearly 25 years have passed since the events of chapter 4 and over 70 years since chapter 1. Now advanced in years, Daniel is a senior statesman in Babylon. He has outlasted a number of kings and in his time Belshazzar, the last of the Chaldean kings of Babylon, will be killed and Babylon will pass from Chaldean rule to rule by Darius the Mede.
In chapters 1-4, we have an account of the life of Nebuchadnezzar, the first Babylonian king to rule over the captive Jews. The account looks at several events in the life of this great king, which eventually bring him to his knees in worship and praise of the God of Israel. Daniel then passes over several kings, giving us this brief account of the last day in the reign of Belshazzar, the last of the Chaldean kings.
The death of Belshazzar at the hand of Darius is a partial fulfillment of the prophecy revealed to king Nebuchadnezzar by his dream in chapter 2. There, Daniel informed Nebuchadnezzar that his kingdom was the first of four kingdoms to precede the coming of Messiah. His was the kingdom of gold, to be followed by a lesser kingdom of silver (Daniel 2:39). The kingdom of silver is introduced in Daniel 5, when Darius captures Babylon, and Belshazzar is put to death. The Medo-Persian kingdom is born, fulfilling the first part of the prophecy revealed through Daniel.
Belshazzar’s Feast (Daniel 5:1-5)
The great feast of Belshazzar takes place about 25 years after the events of chapter 4. Nebuchadnezzar is long gone and the Persians have surrounded the city of Babylon hoping to conquer it.
The great feast probably happened on October 12, 539 – The night that Babylon fell. Greek historians wrote that a great banquet was in progress that night. These types of feasts were displays of wealth and power.
Understanding how things went from bad to worse in these verses is not difficult. Such seems to have been the scene at Belshazzar’s banquet. One thousand of the king’s nobles were invited, along with their wives or other women. The king was responsible for what happened, and too much wine seems to have contributed to his poor judgment. A false sense of pride and self-sufficiency seems to have dominated the dinner party. The king remembered the expensive vessels which Nebuchadnezzar, his father, had taken when he defeated and captured Jerusalem. How much more impressive the evening would be if they drank their wine from the gold and silver vessels from the temple in Jerusalem.
And so the vessels were brought in. The wine continued to flow freely, and toasts began to be offered. That these pagans were engaged in a kind of drinking bout with the sacred temple vessels was bad enough, but the ultimate blasphemy was toasting the gods of gold, silver, brass, iron, wood, and stone.
God has a limit to how far He will allow men to go in their sin. In His longsuffering and mercy, God may allow men to continue in their sin for a time. But there is a time for judgment. The king and his Babylonian dinner guests crossed the line that fateful night in the banquet hall of Babylon. Judgment day had come, and the writing on the wall announced its arrival.
The Handwriting of Doom (Daniel 5:6-16)
Against the whitewashed walls of the palace the writing of the “hand” must have been amazing. The words written were in Aramaic, yet the astrologers and magicians could not decipher them. Their ignorance in the face of a true mystery is a familiar theme ion the book.
Daniel’s refusal of the King’s gifts may indicate the confidence and focus of a man of 90 years of age. His rebuke of Belshazzar contains the telling phrase “though you knew all of this…” The king had not acted in ignorance.
Verses 7 through 9 relate the promise of the king to give rich rewards to anyone able to interpret the writing, but all the wise men failed.
Knowing the power of the Babylonian kings, Belshazzar must have seen many men stand in fear and trembling before him. One might have thought the king was having a heart attack. Barely able to stand, his face was ashen and seized with terror. The raucous laughter turned to deafening silence with all eyes on the king. The king’s eyes were fixed upon the hand as it wrote. As a sense of foreboding and panic fell on the crowd, all eyes turned to the mysterious writing on the wall. The king’s actions alarmed all who were present.
Crying aloud in fear, his speech probably slurred, the king immediately summoned his wise men to the banquet hall. What did these words on the wall mean? He must know. A tempting reward was offered to anyone who could interpret the meaning of the handwriting on the wall.
The queen has great confidence in Daniel’s ability based upon his track record in the history of Babylonian affairs. Her summary of Daniel’s accomplishments in verse 12 suggests that Daniel performed other amazing tasks throughout the lifetime of king Nebuchadnezzar. Those recorded in the Book of Daniel are but a sampling of Daniel’s ministry to the king.
Her confidence does seem to produce a calming effect on the king and his guests. The king summons Daniel to appear before the king and his guests that very night.
The king offered the same reward to Daniel that he had previously offered to anyone who would interpret the handwriting on the wall. It is interesting that he fulfilled his promise to Daniel at the conclusion of this revelation, even though the reward was short-lived.
The Meaning Revealed (Daniel 5:17-30)
1) The inscription is three simple Aramaic words:
Mene, Mene Numbered, Numbered
Having admonished the king, Daniel next proceeded to interpret the writing: Now this is the inscription that was written out: “MENE¯, MENE¯, TEKE¯L, UPHARSIN.” This is the interpretation of the message: “MENE¯”—God has numbered your kingdom and put an end to it. “TEKE¯L”—you have been weighed on the scales and found deficient. “PERE¯S”—your kingdom has been divided and given over to the Medes and Persians (vv. 25–28). 
Each word stands for a short sentence. The Babylonians were renowned for their expertise with numbers, and God speaks to Belshazzar in those terms. In the interpretation Daniel dealt with “MENE¯” only once. Many ancient manuscripts do not repeat “MENE¯” in verse 25, thus corresponding exactly with Daniel’s interpretation. “MENE¯,” literally means “numeration” or “evaluation.” “TEKE¯L” literally means “weighing,” and “PERE¯S,” division. Fortunately, we are not left to try to determine the meaning of such a message, for Daniel gave the interpretation.
Though Daniel accepts the gifts, they did not effect the outcome of the prophecy. Further, being elevated to third highest ruler in Babylon was not much of a prize.
Daniel begins by turning down Belshazzar’s reward. Let the king keep his gifts or give them to someone else. Why would he decline Belshazzar’s offer? Daniel knows that the king’s gifts are virtually useless. What good would it do Daniel to be given the third highest office in the administration of Belshazzar when his reign would end that very night? Daniel was God’s servant, divinely gifted to interpret dreams. He would not prostitute his gift by using it for his own gain. Daniel was not “for hire.” As God’s prophet, Daniel spoke to men for God.
Verses 18-24 are fascinating. In these verses Daniel explains the guilt of king Belshazzar. Unfortunately, Belshazzar had not learned the lesson from Nebuchadnezzar’s mistakes (v. 22). Thus the hand was sent from God (v. 24). The writing on the wall, explained in verses 25-28, speak of the imminent judgment of God which will fall upon Belshazzar and his kingdom, due to sin. Daniel spends more time on the king’s guilt than on his punishment, as he devotes more time to explaining the reason for the writing than the meaning of the writing.
The events of Daniel 4 are now repeated, as a lesson which not only Nebuchadnezzar learned but which Belshazzar his son should have learned as well. God sovereignly granted Nebuchadnezzar power, glory, and majesty, and he exercised that power and authority over mankind. But his heart became proud, and he acted arrogantly. God temporarily took away his power and his kingdom, and he became like the beasts of the field, eating grass and living in the elements without shelter. All this happened so that he might recognize God as the ruler over mankind and recognize that all human authority is delegated to men by God, from whom all authority is derived.
Verse 29 indicates that Belshazzar kept his promise to Daniel. He “gave orders, and they clothed Daniel with purple and put a necklace of gold around his neck, and issued a proclamation concerning him that he now had authority as the third ruler in the kingdom.”
BABYLON’S FALL (5:30)
“That same night Belshazzar the Chaldean king was slain” and the kingdom was conquered (v. 30). Thus ended the Babylonian Empire.
The “head of gold” of Nebuchadnezzar’s vision (chapter 2) was now replaced by a breast and arms of silver—the Medes and Persians.
Lessons for today
Remember The Real Issue.
It’s so easy, in a situation like this, to get your eyes on the wrong thing and forget what those clamoring to honor you are really asking you to do. Flattery can be a heady thing. You can lose sight of what is really going on.
Of course this issue isn’t always so cute. It must have been flattering for Daniel, probably forgotten and on “inactive duty” since the death of Nebuchadnezzar, to be called once again into the palace for advice. Then for a former captive of a defeated nation to be offered third ruler in the kingdom!
The promise of honor and acclaim can be a heady thing. It can cause you to lose sight of your ideals.
The thing Daniel needed to remember in the midst of this incredible offer of honor and acclaim was that this same king had just been hosting a dinner in which the keynote issue was mocking God!
Sure, the honor might be nice, but will you line up with pagans to get it? Will you participate in their blasphemy? Will you mock and dishonor your Maker in order to be honored yourself? Is it worth that much?
“Well, when you put it that way, no. But it isn’t always so clear cut. Sometimes it’s in the gray area.” Yeah, I know. The greater the promise of honor and prestige, the grayer it gets! Yet we must discern.
Someone has aptly written, “Flattery looks like friendship – just like a wolf looks like a dog!”
What I’m saying is this: Remember the real issue! Get your eyes off the glory and get them back on your God! Discern the issues! Know what is really going on. Don’t let the flattery blind you to the facts.
Don’t Change the Message.
No one else in the room recognized that Aramaic writing on the wall. He could have said it meant anything he wanted and no one would ever have known the difference. No one, that is, but God.
Oh that men feared God and feared changing His message more than they craved the attention of men!
The New Testament warns us about changing the message for the sake of personal desires. After an exhortation to “preach the word,” Paul told Timothy in II Timothy 4:3: “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires; and will turn away their ears from the truth, and will turn aside to myths.”
Listen to what God said to His prophet, Ezekiel: Ezekiel 3:17-19: “Son of man, I have appointed you a watchman to the
house of Israel; whenever you hear a word from My mouth, warn them from Me. When I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die’; and you do not warn him or speak out to warn the wicked from his wicked way that he may live, that wicked man shall die in his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand. Yet if you have warned the wicked, and he does not turn from his wickedness or from his wicked way, he shall die in his iniquity; but you have delivered yourself.”
Fear God’s Judgment.
Perhaps you have, at times, used the phrase, “The handwriting is on the wall,” meaning that what is going to happen is very evident and there is no stopping it. That phrase originated from the story in this passage.
BIBLE KNOWLEDGE COMMENTARY says this about what happened: “Belshazzar had a false sense of security, because the Persian army… was outside Babylon’s city walls. Their army was divided; part was stationed where the river entered the city at the north and the other part was positioned where the river exited from the city at the south. The army diverted the water north of the city by digging a canal from the river to a nearby lake. With the water diverted, its level receded and the soldiers were able to enter the city by going under the sluice gate. Since the walls were unguarded the Persians, once inside the city, were able to conquer it without a fight.”
You only get so much warning and then “the handwriting is on the wall.” God will warn of impending judgment only so long, then the ax falls.
It also should be a warning to cause us to fear God when we’re tempted to put acclaim ahead of principle.
 For similar events, recorded in the Bible, see Esther 1 and Mark 6:14-29.
 It is generally understood and accepted that the term “father” was used more loosely in the Old Testament of one’s forefather, who may have been a grandfather or even a more distant “father.”
 See Daniel 1:2; 2 Kings 24:13; 25:15; Ezra 1:7, 11.
 Truth For Today, Life of Daniel series by David Rechtin & Neal Pryor (much of this material is a result of the two issues put out by these two fine writers and this publication, from Searcy, Arkansas